Connor Brown signed an 11th-hour contract and we could all envision the massive sigh of relief emanating from Senators head coach D.J. Smith.
Brown, who signed a three-year deal for $10.8 million USD (average annual value of $3.6 million USD), was Smith’s go-to forward in nearly every situation last season. Not only was the speedy winger second on the team in points (43 in 71 games), he led all forwards with an average of 20:07 minutes per game.
In key moments of the game, whether shorthanded, five-on-five or on the power play, Brown was often the first Ottawa player sent over the boards.
And when his arbitration hearing loomed -- Thursday morning -- there were concerns that Brown, 26, could be headed toward a one-year settlement and then unrestricted free agency next summer. Considering the $2.55 million gap between Ottawa’s arbitration offer of $2.25 million versus the ask of $4.8 million from Brown’s camp, there was a risk the Senators could walk away if the arbitration award was in the high four-millions.
Instead, a happy compromise: the RFA winger reached a deal with Senators general manager Pierre Dorion late Wednesday night, a medium-term deal at a very reasonable cost for the vibrant winger. Brown earns $2.8 million in 2020-21, then $4 million in each of the subsequent seasons.
“I believe in what we’re doing in Ottawa, I think there are nice pieces,” Brown said on a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday. “I think I'm a good fit there, so I felt it was good for both sides and I’m glad we got something sorted out.”
Brown admitted he was extra relieved to have something done, given the “uncertainty in the world” due to COVID-19, not to mention a flat salary cap that is impacting free agent contracts.
On the other side of the deal, Dorion sounded equally pleased to have this deal in the books, another RFA box checked.
“We’re very happy to have Connor back under contract,” Dorion said in a statement. “He brings a veteran presence to our lineup and is a player who can play in different situations.
“He’s durable, has a strong work ethic with great practice habits and is regarded as a leader by his teammates. His ability to play up and down the lineup while producing offensively is especially valuable to us as we continue our transition towards being a consistent winner.”
That "transition" word is key. Until the younger players are ready for top-six duties, Brown will be vital to the Senators' attack. As the skilled players mature, he should take on more of a support role as an energy forward.
Brown, a Toronto native, set career highs in assists (27) and points (43) last season and did not miss a game. A testament to Dorion’s comment on durability is the fact Brown has not missed a game due to injury since March 17, 2016, during his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs drafted Brown in the sixth round (156th overall) of the 2012 draft. He was traded to Ottawa on July 1, 2019 along with defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and forward prospect Mike Carcone in the deal that sent defencemen Codi Ceci, Ben Harpur, forward prospect Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick to Toronto.
There have been big changes on Ottawa’s roster since Brown last played for the team in March. Along with the additions of goaltender Matt Murray, winger Evgenii Dadonov, defencemen Josh Brown and Erik Gudbranson and forward Austin Watson are the departures of veterans Bobby Ryan, Mark Borowiecki, Ron Hainsey and scoring winger Anthony Duclair.
Combine that with an influx of young talent from Belleville, including forwards Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton, and Brown will take on more of a veteran’s stature.
“It's a new role for me in the NHL ... it goes by pretty quick,” Brown said. “I feel like I just stepped into the league and it’s a role I'm going to have to embrace.
“I have played on teams that had a good culture and understand the impact of culture and how it translates into wins, so I will do my best to try to provide leadership for a bunch of guys that are coming into the league.”
How quickly can the Senators be a contender? Brown says the “timeline is hard to predict” and depends how quickly players like Batherson and Norris become impactful in this lineup.
“We have good people, a good coaching staff — we’ll be doing things the right way and hopefully it turns around as quickly as possible,” Brown said.
He noted that young stars like forward Brady Tkachuk and defenceman Thomas Chabot already have leadership roles in their early 20s.
“I know they’re young guys but they were leaders on the team last year and they’re both really good people, team-first guys,” Brown said.
“The team is in good hands as far as character in the room.”
With Brown on board for three more years, Smith can pencil in a right wing assortment of Dadonov, Batherson, Brown and Austin Watson.
“I think we’ll be a tough team to play against," Brown said. "It’s going to be about scoring enough goals."
During this unusual October off-season, he is in the gym five days a week and skates two to three times per week with other NHL players in Toronto, under trainer Bryan Marshall.
How now, player Brown?
If centre Logan Brown becomes a regular on the Senators in 2020-21, there could be a Brown troika, now that Connor Brown is under contract and defenceman Josh Brown has been added via trade from Florida. Oh, and did we mention the Senators play-by-play broadcaster is named Dean Brown?
Connor Brown says it’s a good thing Logan Brown goes by “Logie.” Unfortunately, both Connor and Josh Brown are nicknamed "Brownie."
“Both of our heads will be turning every time someone says ‘Brownie,’” Connor says.
Coincidentally, Connor Brown’s older brother, Jeff, played with Josh Brown on the OHL's Oshawa Generals, where D.J. Smith was head coach.
Sens' cap commitment approaches $64M
Just a few weeks ago, Ottawa’s payroll had nearly as much cap space as it had commitments. What a difference $22.9 million USD can make.
Following the Bobby Ryan buyout on Sept. 25, the Senators had a projected salary cap hit of $41.9 million, sparking discussion on what they might do to get to the cap floor of $60.2 million. The conversation has changed.
After what might be termed a pandemic spending spree, the Senators' cap commitments have surged to $63,697,499, according to CapFriendly. During that time, Ottawa has invested close to $23 million in contracts while acquiring seven players via trade or free agency. The biggest deals involved goaltender Matt Murray (four years, $25 million) and forward Evgenii Dadonov (three years, $15 million).
A month ago, the Senators looked ripe to take on a so-called “bad contract” or an injured reserve candidate to pad out their payroll. Under the circumstances, Dorion’s work could be done for now — barring, perhaps, a prudent free agent to fill a need.
With one restricted free agent left to sign, centre Chris Tierney, who earned $2.937 million last season, Ottawa will soon have cap commitments in the upper-sixties. Depth defenceman Christian Jaros is also an RFA, but he'll likely play in Belleville.
Given the pledge from Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to spend close to the cap from 2021-25 while pursuing a Stanley Cup-capable team, Ottawa will need some of its remaining cap space to keep its core together. Key RFA contracts coming due next summer are forwards Tkachuk and Drake Batherson. Defenceman Christian Wolanin will be an RFA, too.
With its deep prospect pool, Ottawa should have a slew of players on entry-level deals over the next three or four years, including recent draft picks Tim Stuetzle, Jacob-Bernard Docker, Jake Sanderson and Lassi Thomson.
There is enough flexibility in the near term for the Senators to sign a free agent or two over the next year or so, to augment the youth corps.
Some of that flexibility stems from contracts ending next summer, including a total of $17.5 million coming off the books from pending UFAs Artem Anisimov ($4.55 million), Erik Gudbranson ($4 million), Mike Reilly ($1.5 million), Anders Nilsson ($2.6 million) and from the injured reserve list, Marian Gaborik at $4.875 million.